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Bed, board and deportation in the Netherlands

Amsterdam street scene

Amsterdam - a welcoming city for tourists but not necessarily for asylum-seekers. Randy Connolly under a Creative Commons Licence

As Western European countries face increased criticism over their immigration policies, Beulah Devaney asks why commentators have waited until now to criticize the Netherlands.

Following the deaths of over 400 migrants while crossing the Mediterranean in April and Tuesday’s report that another 40 migrants have perished while attempting the same crossing, it’s easy to see why immigration is making headlines across Europe. Hundreds of op-ed pieces have been demanding to know how these deaths could have been avoided. Italy (the first European destination for most migrants) is bracing itself for a new influx of asylum-seekers, Germany is struggling to handle the majority of European asylum applications, Britain is mired in an election where all the major parties are running on anti-immigration platforms, France is battling a rise in hate crimes against immigrants, and the Netherlands is facing both external and internal criticism for its new Bed and Board Deal.

Until now, the Netherlands’ attempts to limit the rights of immigrants has garnered little international interest, but recent criticism from the UN and high-profile Dutch opinion-maker Geert Mak has thrown the spotlight on a country desperately trying to control its own anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Criticism of the Netherlands reached a new high in April when Philip Alston, a human rights lawyer with 20 years’ experience working for the UN, condemned the Dutch government’s treatment of undocumented refugees. Alston told a radio programme: ‘If the Netherlands is going to turn itself into an island in the middle of Europe which rejects its human rights obligations it is better to come out and say it... Just come out and say it: we don’t believe non-Europeans have human rights. At least not in our country.’

The cause of Alston’s frustration is the newly proposed Bed and Board Deal which will replace the emergency shelters available to undocumented refugees with five centres. Undocumented refugees will be allowed to stay in these centres for a few weeks, providing that they co-operate with their own deportation. Alston’s suggestion that the Dutch don’t believe non-Europeans have human rights carries extra weight in the wake of April’s Mediterranean disaster, the news that the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of European asylum is set to increase and claims from the International Organization for Migration that up to 30,000 people could die in the attempt.

Despite first appearances, the Bed and Board Deal is not knee-jerk policy; the Netherlands has been struggling to deal with its undocumented refugees for years now and Alston’s criticism is well-timed to capitalize on growing unease about the way Western European governments are handling immigration.

Raised awareness of the dangers immigrants run to reach Western Europe does not, however, explain why Geert Mak has waded into the fray. Mak, a highly respected Dutch journalist, historian and opinion-maker, has accused the Dutch political elite of allowing themselves to be bullied by rightwing politicians like Geert Wilders, founder and leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party. Just as the Mediterranean tragedy has sparked international interest in immigration, Wilders has sparked domestic unease.

Until now the Dutch have attempted to disengage from debates around immigration, pushing back against EU sanctions on refugee rights, casting themselves as a calm, level-headed nation which can be trusted to do the right thing for sound economic reasons. But by cosying up to the Tea Party and attending anti-immigration rallies in Texas, Wilders has thrown a spotlight on the anti-immigration rhetoric that reverberates around the Netherlands. Mak’s public criticism of the government and media for their inability to handle Wilders highlights the need for the Netherlands to start fighting back against anti-immigration rhetoric.

While the Dutch government attempts to rehabilitate its image after Alston and Mak’s accusations, another crisis has been brewing. Last week, the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) released its findings that discrimination against documented Eastern European immigrants is on the rise. Following interviews with Bulgarian and Polish immigrants who moved to the Netherlands in 2010, the report’s authors found that the discrimination faced by Bulgarian nationals had risen from 17% in 2010 to 66% by 2013, while Polish immigrants saw a rise from 39% to 49% in the same period. The report goes on to make a direct correlation between the anti-immigration rhetoric of Wilders’ Freedom Party and an increase in discrimination. Given that the Freedom Party website has a hotline so that Dutch nationals can ‘report problems with immigrants’ this is hardly surprising – although very damning – news.

The Dutch government is yet to comment on the SCP report or Alston’s promise to bring his disapproval of the Bed and Board Deal up with the UN. For now it remains to be seen whether the Netherlands will treat this recent criticism seriously or if it will simply wait until international interest has moved on.

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